Church of England

The abuse and intimidation of members of the CofE’s General Synod

There is a Westminster Hall debate in Parliament today led by Simon Hart MP on the abuse and intimidation of candidates and the public in UK elections. A briefing pack has been produced which provides some background to the issues, a selection of media articles and links to parliamentary questions and debates on the subject. It includes a few examples of the sort of abuse received:

Sheryll Murray, Conservative MP for South East Cornwall, highlighted the problem at the first Prime Minister’s Questions of the new Parliament, when she spoke of having swastikas carved into campaign posters and abusive online messages.

Both Mrs Murray and the Prime Minister highlighted the concern that intimidation could be deterring people from becoming candidates.

These incidences continue when Members take their seats in the House of Commons. Stella Creasy, Labour Co-operative MP for Walthamstow, has said recently she received a torrent of abusive letters and online messages following her successful campaign to secure NHS funding for abortions for women in Northern Ireland. She was also the victim of online trolling in 2014 after supporting the campaign to have an image of Jane Austen on £10 notes. This led to a prosecution and the sentencing of the perpetrator for 18 weeks.

This is all some way beyond the usual cut and thrust of democratic politics. But it isn’t entirely clear what the limits of abuse should be, especially when one person’s abuse is another’s acerbic observation or robust riposte. Is all ad hominem not a form of abuse? Is the organised and persistent hounding of politicians on matters of policy not a form of intimidation? Of course, there are longstanding and well-known limits which violate the democratic social contract, such as death threats, inciting violence or physical harm to person or property. And some of the abuse experienced by parliamentary candidates certainly falls within this sphere, and the offenders clearly ought to be prosecuted. There is simply no place in a liberal democracy for scaring women threats of rape, or compromising the personal safety of anyone in public life with an ‘I’m gonna get you’ kind of menace.

But the acceptable threshold of abuse and intimidation isn’t always easy to pin down. We live in an era of snowflakes, after all, for some of whom even being confronted by a copy of the Daily Mail is an offence against their hyper-sensitivities. Is it simply a case of some parliamentary candidates being too thin-skinned?

Note how the examples of “abusive letters and online messages” given in the House of Commons report come from women. “Amid complaints that critics of Mr Corbyn – particularly women – have been subjected to bullying and abuse…” notes the Telegraph. “This sort of intimidation was experienced – I am sorry to say – by female candidates in particular,” observed the Prime Minister a few weeks ago. ‘Majority of female MPs suffer abuse from public’, PoliticsHome revealed. “I am sure that many of my fellow female Members from across the House are, unfortunately, all too familiar with this kind of online abuse,” remarked Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods MP.

It is really all quite appalling.

But note that none of this extends to supporters of Brexit, who are routinely abused as ‘racists’ or accused of being ‘xenophobic’. It doesn’t extend to opponents of on-tap abortion, who are routinely abused as ‘sexist’ or ‘misogynist’. It doesn’t extend to orthodox or traditionalist Christians who are routinely abused with smears of ‘homophobia’, ‘Islamophobia’ or some other abusive delinquency. These sorts of choruses form part of the censorious (not to say intimidating) Phobia Project: “When the media narrative and political dialectic are controlled, how does one contend peacefully against moral coercion, or reason intelligently against an unjust oppression?”

Consider these online social-media comments from liberal/progressive members of the General Synod about their more conservative-minded brothers and sisters in Christ during the recent session in York:

AMW is Andrea Minichiello Williams (CEO of Christian Concern) who was actually speaking in a thoughtful and measured manner. She was ‘tottering’ down the steps because she has a fractured hip. But Canon Rosie Harper appears not to care about that.

Imagine how this Anglican canon and bishop’s chaplain would have tweeted if an evangelical had posted such a sarcastic comment about liberals after Synod had failed to support women bishops.

Of course, the Rev’d Dr Ian Paul, who writes the excellent scholarship-serving-ministry Psephizo blog, could not possibly be speaking intelligently, wisely or discerningly. The Rev’d Andrew Foreshew-Cain disagrees with him, so Dr Paul just has to be an overweening narcissist.

You see the strategy here: bitter and fearful bigots of evil are set against the positive and affirming true disciples of Christ.

Is this abuse? Is it intimidation? Is it hate? Gosh, that’s a difficult one. Certainly, if Andrea Minichiello Williams or Ian Paul had written of their critics in like snarly manner, the ‘h’ word would have poured forth, along with sundry ‘phobe’ smears. There is a feeling of needing to occupy the whole church space, silencing nonconformity, converting congregations to their unquestionable ideology and then declaring victory in gloating tweets.

Is it a godly or holy example for ordained ministers to set?

Does it have any place in the General Synod, let alone the Church of Jesus Christ?

Anger is not abuse, but it may certainly intimidate. Righteous anger may be both abusive and intimidatory, for the target of the wrath will rarely feel loved and appreciated: a parental smack is a subjective glance away from child abuse. And it is feelings of love and appreciation (which some call ‘inclusion’) which are beginning to dominate the Church of England’s understanding of sin: if it makes you happy; if it harms no one else; if it is central to your identity; if it feels wholesome, fulfilling and joyful, it is not and cannot be sin.

And if you take issue with this apprehension of salvation theology, you are “utterly disgraceful”, “ranting”, narcissistic or “bitter” and divisive, etc., etc. It is your sinful heart which judges, condemns, alienates and destroys a lot of lovely people.

But not all abuse is harsh and noisy: it can be subtle and sophisticated.  The drip-drip-drip of criticism, misrepresentation, deception and manipulation is also an undoubted abuse. Some might even call it bullying. If ordained ministers in the Church of England are withholding expressions of love, are they not abusing their flock? Or are they locked in such a cycle of abuse and intimidation that they no longer see it as such, often excusing their sin by deflecting or projecting? So the likes of Andrea Minichiello Williams and Ian Paul bring it on themselves: Rosie Harper, Andrew Foreshew-Cain and Simon Rundell are humble prophets of righteousness, and their task is to expose and rebuke their bigoted opponents because the gospel of inclusion and love demands so.

And so this blog is also a tool of Satan: every word written drips with hate, hypocrisy and bigotry. Merely to question some people or to expose their modus operandi invites such allegations. O, they won’t provide actual quotes of such offence in order that you may sit and reason with them: they will simply assert that it is so, and that will make it so.

Both the abused and abusers may appear to have very thick skin, but both will be hurting, because we all do. The abused might prefer to wait for the abusers to take responsibility and apologise, but peace and reconciliation are thereby placed beyond reach, for the abuser and abused will never agree about who is the victim and who the perpetrator. You may loathe Andrea Minichiello Williams and adore Rosie Harper, or vice-versa. You may laud Ian Paul and detest Simon Rundell, or vice-versa. And yet Jesus loves both and all, despite neither and none deserving it. We all see our reflections in a mirror, darkly. None of us is in possession of the whole and perfect truth. Isn’t that the table at which we might break bread and repair fractured fellowship?

Abuse leaves scars, some of which will never fully heal, but if Church prods, pokes, hacks away and tears strips off the Redeemed of Christ, what hope does it have to bind the wounds of the brokenhearted who do not know, and have not seen or heard?